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Did West Coast Labor Talks Stall? Union Speaks Out

The union representing more than 22,000 West Coast dockworkers confirmed Friday talks continue with employers on a new contract and called anything to the contrary “rumors.”  

“The union and the employer have agreed to not discuss negotiations in the media, and any rumors about what happens at the negotiating table are second, third or fourth hand,” the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) said in a statement late Friday. “The union has no comment on unsourced rumors except to say that the parties continue to negotiate.” 

The statement came on the heels of a Wall Street Journal report Friday stating talks had ground to a halt due to a disagreement stemming from which union would be awarded the equipment and maintenance work at a Port of Seattle terminal.  

The ILWU is representing dockworkers at the 29 ports lining the U.S. West Coast in negotiations with terminal operators, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). 

The ILWU, according to the Wall Street Journal, wants its equipment repair workers to be used at the Seattle terminal. However, that work is already handled by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. 

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The report went on to cite anonymous sources that said the dispute is holding up negotiations on other aspects of the contract, such as automation and wages. 

The ILWU and PMA have been in negotiations since May 10 and were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract by the expiration of the previous one on July 1. 

Some strides have been made, including in the area of health benefits, which the two sides confirmed late last month. 

Retailers and other industry groups have been closely monitoring the situation due to continued challenges across the broader supply chain as shippers enter peak season. 

Disagreements in the 2014 contract talks led to a slowdown and container congestion at the ports that ultimately prompted President Obama to intervene in February 2015. 

The Biden administration, not wanting to repeat that experience amid continued wrinkles in the nation’s supply chain coming out of the height of the pandemic, has been proactive in stressing the need for goods to continue flowing through the ports as the two parties work toward an agreement. 

A disruption on the magnitude of a slowdown across West Coast ports would be crippling to the movement of goods, particularly with other supply chain issues mounting. 

Rail, in particular, and failed labor talks in that area of logistics are another area of concern. 

A dozen rail worker unions, representing some 115,000 workers, and major railroads are in the midst of a 30-day cooling off period that began after the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) released its contract recommendations to the two parties on Aug. 16. Biden appointed the PEB last month to stop the possibility of a strike after mediation was unable to yield a new contract. 

The two sides, which have been negotiating for more than two years, will have a chance during the cooling off period to review the report and continue negotiations before they would have the option to engage in a strike or lockout. 

Initial reactions on Thursday indicated a couple union leaders weren’t pleased with the PEB’s recommendations on wages and paid sick days, while others have remained largely silent as they go over the board’s conclusions. 

A shutdown of the nation’s rail would inflict significant disruptions on the flow of goods, adding to mounting container congestion bound for rail at ports amid labor and equipment shortages.